Reports of armed Mexican outlaws crossing the border to clash with U.S. forces led to demands that the president send troops to protect American lives.
It sounds like a story ripped from this week’s headlines, when Texas sheriff’s deputies pursued marijuana smugglers protected by machine-gun wielding men in Mexican military uniforms.
So far, the White House is speaking of its “concern about the reports” of Monday’s border crossing, which a spokesman described as “an incident that is under investigation.” Yet in 1916, when Pancho Villa’s bandits raided Columbus, N.M., a Democratic president didn’t hesitate.
President Woodrow Wilson sent Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing to lead an expedition into Mexico. A $5,000 bounty was offered for Villa’s capture, and Army posters invoked “The Flag, Old Glory” in calling for 25,000 recruits: “Come on, boys, be ready to shoulder the trusty Springfield.”
The reaction was especially swift in the Los Angeles Times, historian Clayton E. Cramer has noted. Before Villa’s New Mexico incursion, the newspaper had described Villa as a “rebel leader.” After the Columbus raid, an editorial denounced him as an “outlawed Mexican bandit” and “the vilest kind of ruffian.”
The Wilson administration also acted swiftly. Thousands of U.S. troops poured into Columbus, and Gen. Pershing arrived from Fort Bliss, Texas, to take command.
The Mexican government at first was favorable to the U.S. attack on its enemy, Villa, but Carranza came to resent the U.S. presence, and soon Pershing’s troops were fighting both Villa’s rebels and regular Mexican troops.
The expedition “was a fiasco,” said Old West historian Roger McGrath.
Mexico offered “perfect defensive positions for Pancho Villa—he knew the country like the back of his hand,” Mr. McGrath said. The American campaign “was a logistical nightmare—no roads, no maps, no water.”
Villa eluded capture, and in early 1917—as war loomed between the United States and Germany—Wilson recalled the Army.